How Chris Mueller Lights For Energetic Shots—Both With and Without Subjects

March 23, 2017

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Chris Mueller

For a Men’s Health story, Chris Mueller had only a few minutes to photograph Clay Matthews mid-workout. Mueller says he carefully plans his compositions first, but “there’s still a lot of excitement and energy,” he says.

Clients: Men’s Health, Newsweek

Like many editorial photographers, Chris Mueller often photographs busy, impatient subjects and un-photogenic environments. “I am someone who is hired to capture moments that aren’t necessarily pretty and make them look visually compelling,” he says.

But he’s never had a shoot go badly, he says. When faced with a reluctant subject—a harried CEO, a busy farmer or miner, an impatient athlete or the manager of a facility who wants him out of the way—the trick, he says, is not to “cower,” but to “radiate extreme confidence” and assure them that they’ll soon be back at work.

Two photos exemplify the challenges Mueller has handled. When he was assigned to photograph NFL linebacker Clay Matthews going through a workout, Matthews balked at being photographed. Mueller managed to coax the athlete into giving him what he needed to get the shot and more.

On an assignment from Newsweek to photograph a Costco store, Mueller managed to get a long-exposure photo—shot on 4×5 film—of what appears to be an empty store just minutes before cashiers, stockers, the floor cleaner and customers rushed in.

The photos have something else in common besides speed. Though the subjects are different, Mueller says in both cases, he planned the composition first. When shooting portraits, he notes, “I never focus first on the person and then try to frame the shot around them, I get the shot visually and compositionally set, and then drop the subject into the frame.” Thanks to the planning of each composition, he adds, “Even though one looks active and one looks still, there’s still a lot of excitement and energy in both.”

© Chris Mueller

Shooting on film, Mueller had a shorter window of time to make a long exposure of a Costco store for Newsweek. © Chris Mueller


Jeanne Graves, director of photography at Men’s Health, assigned Mueller to shoot a story about Ryan Capretta, a superstar trainer who uses unconventional techniques to keep pro football players in shape during the off-season. The shoot took place on a practice field near Los Angeles, where the athletes do exercises such as jumping side-to-side over a large tractor tire. The shoot got underway just before noon on a sunny day. “The sun was super high overhead,” Mueller recalls.

His first shot was of Clay Matthews. Digital tech Brian Faini was setting up his monitors, the photo assistant had just positioned the lights, and Mueller had not yet made a single photo when, he says, Matthews “got ticked off.” “He immediately says, ‘This shoot’s over,’” Mueller recalls. “I said, ‘Well, wait. It hasn’t started yet.’” Hovering nearby were Matthews’s trainer, other athletes, and marketing people from Nike, which sponsors Matthews. Mueller had to get him excited about the photo. “It’s like: Let’s shoot this bad boy. Everyone’s here. I can make it quick. Let’s do it and get it done,” he recalls. Shooting the first setup took five to ten minutes, but by then Matthews was excited, “and proceeded to let us shoot a second take for another 15 minutes.”

For a Newsweek story on Costco, Mueller wanted to capture a quiet moment inside a store “that’s always ferociously working.” Costco’s co-founder and former CEO Jim Sinegal was at the shoot, and told Mueller, “We can’t stop the store for you.” Mueller climbed atop a palette of cartons about 6 feet high, and set his camera on a Gitzo tripod at eye height. He told the stockers working in the aisles to duck so they wouldn’t be seen in his shot.

He wanted the full length of the room to be illuminated and in focus, to encourage the viewer’s eye “to move through the frame.” However, the store was lit only by a few skylights and some light bulbs hanging from the high ceilings. It looked bright to the eye, “but in the camera, it can be very dim,” he says. He shot a long exposure to make the most of the ambient light. He got six to eight shots, he recalls, before the cashiers and guards allowed the customers waiting at the doors to pour inside.


During the portrait shoot for Men’s Health, Mueller needed to work with the bright overhead sun and also freeze Matthews in mid-jump. He chose to light Matthews with two Profoto D4 heads, because their “recycling times are extremely fast,” he says.

To create rim lighting, an assistant stood behind Matthews, just out of frame, and held a 12-foot-high stand with a Profoto head mounted on it. This head had a white beauty dish and a grid in order to focus the light and eliminate flaring. For a front light, Mueller set up a 27.5-inch Elinchrom Rotalux Deep Octa softbox at camera left. The Rotalux was lined with silver and had no front baffle, but on this light, too, Mueller used a grid to focus the light. The light brought out a gleam on Matthews’ shirt and sweaty arms. “The Elinchrom with that silver lining adds so much sparkle,” Mueller notes.


For the Matthews shoot, Mueller used a Hasselblad H5D-50 with a 35mm lens “shoved way in,” he says. “That 35mm allowed me to shoot the entire depth of the field.” He shot at f/11, toggling between 1/250th and 1/500th. sec. shutter speed.

Mueller calls the Hasselblad 5D “a beast of a camera,” but he shot handheld to follow Matthews’s jumps. “I shoot close so I can talk to the subjects non-stop,” he says. “I’m keeping them focused in the moment, because as soon as they drift, they’re like: Is it over?”

For the Costco shot, he shot Kodak Portra 160 film using a 4×5 Sinar X with a Schneider 90mm f/5.6 Super Angulon lens. He shot at f/8 for about a second.

“I’m a film fan,” says Mueller who, until recent advancements in digital camera sensors and programs such as Capture One, preferred the look of film shots to those captured digitally. Shooting film, he notes, “makes you really slow yourself down and think about that shot.”

Post Production

During the shoot with Matthews, Faini, the digital tech, worked on two monitors with a small cover over them, where people could preview shots and “get excited.” He shot tethered and used Capture One, previewing a few shots at a time. To keep the shoot moving, he says, “I don’t overshoot. I shoot enough, scroll through them, say, ‘Do we have exposure and good form? Great, let’s keep moving.’”

For the Costco shot, as on other film shoots, Mueller let his lab know in advance that he would need his film processed within 24 hours. He then scanned the negs, and did his edit from the low-res scans.

The Costco image, printed 5×6 feet, hangs in Mueller’s house. He says it reminds him of the challenges he deals with as an editorial photographer. “We’re always trying to make the raddest shot possible from whatever’s there.”

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